The blog of the Urban Institute
May 4, 2021

Easing Barriers to Child Care Food Subsidies for Home-Based Child Care Providers Offers Policymakers an Overlooked Opportunity

For millions of children in child care, the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) acts as a key nutritional support by reimbursing child care providers for the cost of snacks and meals provided to the children in their care. But not all children in child care have access to this support, as many home-based child care (HBCC) providers face barriers to participating in the CACFP and other subsidy programs 

In 2012, almost 4 million HBCC providers (PDF), mostly women, cared for about 7 million children younger than 6—numbers that would be even higher if school-age children were included. These providers range from license-exempt relatives caring for one or two related children to licensed family child care homes with staff caring for 10 or more children, with licensing requirements varying from state to state (PDF). HBCC providers are particularly important for families with infants and toddlers, families working nontraditional schedules, families living in rural areas, families of children with special needs, and other families for whom child care centers are not available or not preferred 

Although HBCC providers have always been essential to the child care field, during the COVID-19 pandemic, families increasingly turned to these providers as child care centers closed or to limit contact with other children.  

Removing unnecessary barriers to CACFP participation for HBCC providers could support the healthy development and well-being of millions of American children. CACFP participation can benefit children’s health outcomes and nutritional intake, which is especially important considering the increases in food insecurity among children and families because of the pandemic. Helping HBCC providers access CACFP subsidies can also help stabilize a critically important segment of the child care market devastated by the pandemic (PDF), easing the path for parents to return to work. 

State and federal policymakers currently have a confluence of policy opportunities to help HBCC providers benefit from this essential nutritional support for children. Funding for child care through pandemic relief packages, pandemic-related waivers and policy changes from the US Department of Agriculture making participation more worthwhile, and the upcoming reauthorization (PDF) of the child nutrition programs, including the CACFP, all present opportunities for policymakers to address HBCC providers barriers to CACFP participation 

What barriers do HBCC providers face to CACFP participation? 

A recent Urban analysis finds that several factors interact to shape whether a HBCC provider participates in the CACFP. Some factors shape whether providers enroll in the CACFP, including their eligibility, their awareness of the program, and the perceived ease of difficulty of the enrollment process. Sponsor agencies’ ability to recruit, support, and monitor HBCC providers and oversee the program can also affect whether HBCC providers join. Additional factors shape whether providers stay in the program, including reimbursement amounts, nonfinancial incentives, and the ease or difficulty of meeting program requirements, all of which can be barriers.  

These factors are, in turn, shaped by two overarching issues. First, there’s a widespread misconception that home-based settings are of lesser quality than center-based programs, which is at least in part related to an unconscious bias toward child care centers inherent to many quality metrics. And second, the CACFP is not consistently connected to other key elements of the child care system at the federal, state, and local levels, making it more challenging for the program to leverage partnerships and cross-sector coordination efforts to support participation 

How policymakers can help HBCC providers take advantage of CACFP subsidies 

Our review suggests both federal and state policymakers can reduce these barriers, some of which are summarized below.  

At the federal level, policymakers could do the following: 

  • help sponsor agencies expand participation of hard-to-serve HBCC providers and provide incentives to sponsor agencies to partner with intermediary organizations supporting HBCC providers, such as family child care networks or shared service models 
  • ease the administrative burden by reducing paperwork and oversight requirements 
  • fairly compensate providers by examining and addressing the equity and adequacy of HBCC reimbursement levels 
  • simplify targeting of the CACFP to children with low incomes by coordinating with eligibility for other means-tested federal programs and considering community eligibility strategies 
  • allow sponsor agencies to do some compliance and support visits virtually 
  • encourage more active collaboration between other federal programs, such as the Child Care and Development Fund, and use other supports (including child care pandemic relief) to reinforce CACFP participation as a provider stabilization strategy 
  • ensure penalties for noncompliance are commensurate with the transgression by revising and simplifying regulations and penalties so the most serious penalties only apply to fraud and abuse 

Additionally, state policymakers could consider the following 

  • identify alternative approval strategies to licensing for legally exempt providers so children cared for by HBCC providers who are unlikely to become licensed can still benefit from the CACFP’s nutritional supports 
  • improve coordination between the CACFP and other state agencies and state-funded entities to support outreach and enrollment to HBCC providers and include CACFP agencies on child care and early education coordinating councils 
  • include supporting CACFP enrollment and participation in the activities and responsibilities of any funds going to intermediary organizations, such as family child care networks or shared service models 

These actions could help make nutritional supports available to many more young children and stabilize a critically important part of the child care sector, helping our children and their caregivers recover from the pandemic’s impacts. 


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